One of my favorite moments from Pokémon Red happens shortly after players arrive in Pewter City. If you approach a fellow wearing a sunhat and standing in a field of flowers he remarks, “Psssst! Do you know what I’m doing?”
He’ll tell you that he is spraying Repel to ward off the Pokémon that feast on his garden. It’s a simple moment for new players like I was in 1998, but it was revelatory. This tiny conversation both informs you about an in-game item, and, if you use your imagination, provides a bit of world-building. I remember thinking, “what kinds of Pokémon are eating his garden? I wonder if they are the Weedle and Caterpie that I just found in Viridian Forest?”
I may have been thinking too hard about what the gardener said, but now, 24 years and nine generations of Pokémon later, I’m starting to think there’s an issue with Pokémon NPCs. With each successive game, notably starting with Pokémon X and Y, I’ve felt increasingly unimpressed by the series’ attempts at exposition. The plots of the villainous teams get increasingly more nonsensical, and the regions, while (usually) more visually impressive than their predecessors, evoke little response beyond some surprise at the real-world areas (the Eiffel Tower, Hawaiian beaches) recreated in-game.
Year after year, I’ll buy Pokémon games, play for about 40 hours and enjoy battling, catching, and trading monsters, but think nothing of the world that Game Freak created. Sure, I’m getting older and split my time once reserved for playing Pokémon among countless other games and responsibilities, but I don’t think that’s the issue. I still make time to run through Pokémon Crystal or Sapphire every so often, in an attempt to recapture the love I once had for the series.
Instead, during my numerous play-throughs of the series, I have realized that in 2022, Pokémon has a world-building problem, and Game Freak is doing nothing about it.
The Good Old Days
I’m going to take off my rose-tinted glasses for a bit and be candid about the first few generations of Pokémon. The original games were buggy, occasionally to the chagrin of casual players and to the benefit of speedrunners. Limits on file size meant justifying the removal of areas like Viridian Forest in Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal with a rationale about deforestation. A Hoenn region that required using every Hidden Machine move to complete the main game plagued the third-generation games with cries about poor pacing and a terribly designed map. Even Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, which are visually the peak of the original 2D art style, were hampered by slow runtimes and lengthy animations.
And yet, many of those issues (ok, not the first-generation games being buggy or the fourth-generation games running slowly), were justifiable given the worlds that players visited.
The transition between the first and second-generation games laid out an overarching view of the urbanization that game director Satoshi Tajiri experienced while growing up in Japan. The first region, Kanto, gradually progresses from rural routes and forested and mountainous areas to neatly gridded city streets and paved pathways.
The neighboring Johto region echoes that transition, as historic cities and towns like Ecruteak and Mahogany wrestle with sitting in the shadow of the metropolis of Goldenrod.
The non-playable characters throughout the games give credence to the juxtaposed areas. Some, like the Kimono Girls, or Kurt, perform traditional trades like dancing or making PokeBalls from apricots. Others, like the electrician or gambler (changed to gamer in re-releases) classes of trainers make their living off of the technological advances that are commonplace in urban areas.
To be fair, most of the NPCs in Pokémon games are completely inconsequential. Save for named characters like the regional Professors or the enemy team, players could finish the games without talking to most townspeople. Still, the inclusion of NPCs in the game breathes life into a pixelated world. They provide context for the story elements that accompany players on their journey to beat the Pokémon League. In Hoenn, you’ll meet a person who relishes how fit the Sootopolis City population is, given that accessing the city requires diving underwater or flying into the volcano, as well as climbing numerous sets of stairs. In Sinnoh, sailors naturally take refuge in the port town of Canalave, just as miners dig up coal in Oreburgh.
What follows is the creation of distinct areas. Each locale is different, sometimes subtly, often drastically, than others, even those within the same region. Fuschia City is accessible from Celadon via the bike path, and functionally, both cities feature similar destinations - a Pokémon Center, a Mart, and a Gym. Yet both also have their own attractions, the Safari Zone and routes to the Seafoam Islands for the former and the department store and Game Corner for the latter, making the need to visit and revisit each city a unique experience.
A Modern Touch
Classic Pokémon games rightfully deserve criticism at times, but on the whole, the developers were thoughtful in their construction. Increasingly, however, I’m brushing off the newer games, which, while enticing for their gameplay innovations - fairy types, dynamaxing and raid battles - fail to grab my attention with regards to the construction of the world.
Admittedly, much of this disdain originates with the enjoyable but unoptimized Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. The games have simultaneously revolutionized the core series’ formula while being a suboptimal example of game development and exposition.
The open-world philosophy that has taken hold of each of Nintendo’s flagship series of late (Mario, Kirby, Legend of Zelda) is generally well implemented in Scarlet and Violet. While the levels of NPC opponents don’t scale alongside that of the player, nearly every area in the Paldea region is accessible after the game’s intro.
That open world has also seen the removal of random battles and the addition of more quest beats, meaning players are spending more time exploring and less time fending off wild Pokémon for trivial experience points.
The improvements come at the cost of poor performance, however, as framerate-drops plague the game and its 3D environments. What’s worse is that those 3D environments are far from being the densely populated, detail-rich areas that would warrant such technical problems.
When I think about stellar JRPG environments, my mind immediately heads toward the Persona series. Though the recent games, namely P3, P4, and P5, all have featured increasingly larger overworlds, they are far from being on the scale of a 3D open-world action game. Each location in Persona has a handful of NPCs you can talk to, with a few others serving as non-interactive set dressing.
The characters you can talk to, however, are scripted like real people - they’ll discuss hopes and dreams, or the latest topic on the news. These characters talk about the world around them and make the otherwise diorama-like areas of Persona feel like pockets of real-life cities.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, by contrast, feel empty. The majority of NPCs share their thoughts as miniature, pop-up text bubbles only when approached, while the rest largely talk about the game’s new features, such as picnicking and sandwich making, rather than the region's happenings.
I have an idea why the dialogue is so bland - nothing is really happening in the Paldea region. In past Pokémon games, a villainous team has established some sort of plot device that justifies an in-world response. In the Generation II games, Team Rocket disrupted the Lake of Rage and Radio Tower in hopes of goading their former boss out of hiding. In Generation V, Team Plasma wrestled with the complexities of freedom as factions of the group sought to liberate Pokémon from their trainers by force.
These plot lines serve as motivation for players to want to learn about the in-game world, interacting with NPCs to gain context about various story beats. Scarlet and Violet, however, lack the plotlines that would encourage NPCs to discuss the world around them. Essentially, most of the problems that the players encounter don’t involve NPCs beyond a select few, leaving the rest to wallow in the game’s mediocre script.
This shouldn’t be a problem if the gameplay is fun, right? Unfortunately, in a 3D, open-world game, the environment has to hold up to justify its existence. Albeit a game in a different genre, when CD Projekt Red introduced Cyberpunk 2077, they did so by making huge promises about the way players could expect to experience Night City. Promises like NPCs following their own daily routines that would change depending on the time and weather (they didn’t), or in-game films dubbed “braindances” that would be watchable outside of specific cutscenes (they weren’t).
Even so, Cyberpunk 2077 leaned into the world it did deliver. Characters spoke in slang (choom, eddies, joytoys); sectors of the city catered to certain demographics (nomads, corpos, organized criminals), and the melded cultures of the Americas, Europe and Asia are expressed through nearly every aspect of Night City. Cyberpunk didn’t deliver at launch on everything it promised, but it did create an open world that could stand apart from long-running franchises that deal in the action and RPG genres.
Unfortunately for the latest Pokémon games, Game Freak has yet to hit on the winning mixture of gameplay and set development. The skeleton is certainly there - towns and cities employ interesting architecture and designs, but the people and attractions that inhabit them leave plenty to be desired.
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